scorecardCOVID-19 will devastate Mississippi's African-American community
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COVID-19 will devastate Mississippi's African-American community

W. Ralph Eubanks   

COVID-19 will devastate Mississippi's African-American community
PolicyPolicy8 min read

  • African Americans make up just under 40% of Mississippi's total population, but represent 56% of its known COVID-19 infections and 72% of its deaths from the virus.
  • "The reduction in income for people during this crisis is going to hit particularly hard in Mississippi ... since a large part of the population has little or no cushion to withstand an unexpected financial shock," Hope Credit Union CEO William Bynum said.
  • Instead of working to improve public health and economic outcomes for the his state's black community, Gov. Tate Reeves has, of late, chosen to honor its Confederate legacy.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Directly across from a set of railroad tracks in the heart of Jackson, Mississippi, stands a brick building with a mansard roof. Built by 62-year-old Tyrone Bully, and his father, a former brick mason, it houses Bully's Restaurant, perhaps the one place in town that unites Mississippians of all races. Inside its exposed-brick walls, lined with portraits of black icons such as Medgar Evers and Barack Obama, you're as likely to meet a powerful state legislator inside its walls as you are ordinary working people from the African American neighborhood that surrounds the 38-year-old restaurant.

Even before Bully's won a prestigious James Beard Foundation award, in 2016, it was no secret to the people of Jackson that its soul-food offerings — greens, macaroni and cheese, oxtails, and smothered pork chops — were without peer. While today foodies associate the cuisine with comfort and decadence, it originated from dishes African Americans made from the meager food rations available during slavery and after emancipation. Making them tasty became a byproduct of survival. Bully's, then, came to represent black survival.

On April 10, Tyrone and his wife, Greta, closed Bully's because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nine days after Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Restaurant closures began slowly, first in the college town of Oxford before moving south to Jackson. While the Bully's found the closure devastating, they knew staying open would imperil their employees and customers.

The couple is lucky: Their savings will allow them to continue to pay their staff and close the business and reopen when this crisis is over. But Greta worries about their neighbors. "Black people have always done without," she told me.

Before the Bullys closed up shop, several of their neighbors showed Greta an article they saw on social media falsely claiming black people were immune to the coronavirus. "The benefits of melanin (internal and external) must be considered when talking about black people resisting the coronavirus," one article said. She reminded those who shared the posts that COVID-19 did not discriminate on the basis of color.

While African Americans make up slightly less than 40% of Mississippi's total population, they represent 56% of its known COVID-19 infections and 72% of its deaths from the virus. In a state where black residents already face dire health outcomes, the unprecedented pandemic will only further devastate its most vulnerable citizens.

Outside of Jackson, Mississippi is largely a rural state, where for some the closest hospital is 20 miles away. Combine this pandemic with unequal access to healthcare and existing poor health outcomes for the state's black population, and the approaching disaster becomes clear. Black women also fill most of the state's low-wage jobs, particularly in sectors deemed essential like healthcare and food retail. This places them at higher risk for exposure than most of the population.

"What we are seeing in Mississippi can't be really fully appreciated without acknowledging the conditions that existed before the pandemic," William Bynum told me. He's the chief executive officer of the Hope Credit Union, which serves low-income communities in Mississippi and across the South, particularly in areas with a legacy of persistent poverty.

Over half of Mississippi households don't have enough cash or liquid assets to subsist for three months if their income is interrupted, he said. The racial disparities are staggering: 7 out of 10 black households just could not withstand losing their income for three months.

"The reduction in income for people during this crisis is going to hit particularly hard in Mississippi," he said, "since a large part of the population has little or no cushion to withstand an unexpected financial shock."

Across the South there is a saying that when white folks get a cold, black folks get pneumonia. Mississippi's COVID-19 crisis threatens to prove it true.

On adjacent 30-acre stretches of land, about 70 miles north of Bully's, in the Mississippi Delta, lies the West Holmes Community Development Organization, a rural farm cooperative in Holmes County, the poorest county in the state. Its origins are rooted in the New Deal-era 1930s, when Mileston was established as a black-run farm cooperative by the federal government.

Each year the co-op hires high-school students to plant and harvest vegetable crops on land donated by farmers in the area. In turn, local residents enrolled in the USDA Women, Infants and Children program can redeem their vouchers for organic produce. At the end of the growing season, the farmers split the proceeds with the young entrepreneurs who are part of this program.

By this time of year, 58-year-old Calvin Head, who runs the cooperative, would have typically employed 30 workers to work his fields. Each of his student workers earned about $700 a month, not a living wage but enough to supplement the income of a family living close to the poverty line. But an unusually heavy rain season has made the land too wet to plow, and the pandemic has disrupted access to seed and planting products.

For Head, a perpetual optimist, the great irony is that an operation that was founded to change the dynamic in a poor community may now be in danger. "I'm not giving up, but there is so much uncertainty," Head told me over the phone from his co-op's small office. "Everything in farming is time-sensitive. We don't mind doing the hard work, but we can't even get out in the fields now."

Holmes is one of Mississippi's 82 counties experiencing persistent poverty, a federal classification indicating that the poverty rate has been over 20% for more than three decades. Many of these counties have been challenged by persistent poverty dating back to the Jim Crow era. If you take a map of Mississippi showing areas of deep, entrenched poverty with regard to race exists in Mississippi, it often overlaps with the heaviest concentration of slaveholding on the eve of the Civil War. These also happen to be the same places in the state with the worst health outcomes, poor housing conditions, and regular food insecurity.

These parts of the state are also home to families saddled with crushing debt, as Bynum said. Depressed wages will increase the pressures of debt, which in turn will hammer businesses and employees of essential businesses, including healthcare and hospital workers. Average annual wages for the state's service-sector workers are already less than half that of all industries in the Deep South, and Mississippi has the largest wage gap for service workers of any Southern state. The average annual pay in the retail and hospitality sector is $17,500, compared with almost $39,000 for all industries statewide. And these jobs are largely filled by people of color, many of them women. Blacks in Mississippi earn about 69% of what whites earn at the median, among full-time, year-round workers.

The safety net these families would rely on in times of hardship has also come undone. Between 2003 and 2010, the state rejected about half of the applicants to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, a federally funded state-run program that provides emergency assistance to families in times of need. In 2011, the state's rejection rate moved up to 89% and has inched up every year since. In a state with 51 counties dealing with persistent poverty, only 7,000 people in Mississippi meet state standards to receive a monthly check of $170 for a family of three.

"The denial of rights and privileges, and privileges, the things that we normally would consider to be basics, they are not so basic anymore," Sen. John Horhn told me.

Yet just six weeks before Mississippi issued its stay-at-home order, its former welfare director, four of his colleagues, and a former pro wrestler were charged with carrying out a multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme. This operation used public money from needy families for the personal use of those involved in the scheme. Money was even used for a luxury rehab stay in California. Mississippi has funds to help its poorest citizens, but those funds have now been squandered by people who didn't need them.

The Affordable Care Act, passed during the Obama administration, made it so that states could expand their Medicaid programs to households making less than 138% of the federal poverty limit. Previously, those benefits were available only to people below the poverty line. Expanding the program would cover 130,000 poor Mississippians. But Mississippi declined to expand, and Republican Tate Reeves, elected governor in November 2019, ran on a platform promising to keep it that way.

Even in a full-blown public-health emergency, Reeves has said he had no plans to change his position.

"We do have a lot of people in our state who are either obese or headed towards obesity, and that's not a good condition to have if you were to contract the virus. That puts you in a higher-risk category because you're going to have similar challenges breathing, et cetera, if you get one of the horrible cases," Reeves told Mississippi Today in a recent interview.

He claimed to be working to provide access to care for every Mississippian. But he also stressed the state had to prioritize who gets care.

"We don't need everyone who's sneezing to run and get a test," Reeves said.

A lack of sensitivity seems to be a recurring theme for Reeves. Just days after finally issuing a shelter-in-place order, he proclaimed April Confederate Heritage Month. Oddly, his proclamation failed to mention slavery, ignoring both the real reason Mississippi seceded from the Union, and legacy of its successor, Jim Crow. In the absence of a sound plan to keep his constituents safe, Reeves embraced Southern essentialism, shielding himself from the racial and economic realities of life in the state he governs. He went further by appointing not a single African American to his COVID-19 economic recovery team.

In Mississippi and across the American South, politicians often cleave to a regressive idea of the South seemingly out of the 1950s, an era defined by white supremacist politics and rhetoric. In draping himself in the Confederate legacy, Reeves reminds nearly 40% of his constituents that white supremacy is about denying opportunity to African Americans and ensuring their impoverishment. A proclamation of Confederate Heritage Month, then, feels like a celebration of that impoverishment.

If Mississippi, my home state, can sever its linkage to the Confederate imagery and its associated rhetoric, it can reimagine its cultural identity and shift its narrative. Yet Mississippi's narrative seems to be caught in a feedback loop, one that reinforces the idea of a closed society, one that led a newspaper editorial during Reconstruction to proclaim: "This is a White Man's Government; and trusting in our firm purpose, our good right arms and the God of Right, we will maintain it so."

"Once if you were pushing against the state government, you could rely on the courts for help," Sen. Horhn reminded me. "But you can't do that anymore. At one time you could rely on the federal government to provide basic supplies and food for people in abject poverty, and you can't even depend on them anymore." Instead, black Mississippians feel abandoned and alone.

Mississippi has always gone it alone. Maybe this pandemic — and the economic issues it places into full view — will finally open up the closed society.

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past" and "The House at the End of the Road." He is a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

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